In “Buyer and Cellar,” Laguna Playhouse’s latest offering, wordplay in the title signals what’s to come on stage.
Sprung from Jonathan Tolins’ imagination, the cellar is Barbra Streisand’s underground replica of an 18th century Main Street assembled in the basement of a barn erected on her Malibu estate. Replete with a dress shop holding her movie costumes, an ice cream parlor, a shop filled with her doll collection and others stocked with meticulously selected items, this private shopping mall is the lone refuge of a compulsive collector whose predilections were ostensibly shaped by a deprived childhood in the Bronx.
Barbra is well known for her acquisition of the finest things in life, enough to fill her book “My Passion for Design,” where she functions as author and chief photographer. Published by Viking in 2010, the book is what inspired Tolins to pen the story of Alex More, a young, gay Los Angeles actor whose wallet is as skinny as his physique, accepting the position of caretaker of Barbra’s ersatz 18th century shopping mall.
Alex, the play’s sole physical protagonist, guides the audience through a funny and intelligent romp through his job after being fired from Disneyland, a workplace known to some as Mauschwitz and the Magic Kingdom to the masses. Combining hilarity, poignancy, self-introspection and philosophical insights regarding the power and price of celebrity, he delineates a little pisher’s place in the scheme of a larger world.
Emerson Collins as Alex is first-rate, keeping the play’s pace at just the right speed. At the performance’s end, the question that buzzed among the departing audience was “how on earth could he remember all those character’s lines and changing nuances without even coming up for air?”
Collins won a Desert Theatre League award for best actor in a comedy for his performance in The Regional Theatre premiere with “Coyote StageWorks” in Palm Springs and recently completed a season in the cable channel Bravo’s “The People’s Couch.” He is also working on Del Shore’s “A Very Sordid Wedding,” a sequel to “Sordid Lives.”
Besides Alex, he voices Sharon, Streisand’s seen-it-all house manager; his steady boyfriend, Barry; Vincent, the Disney pal who found him the job; and Barbra, in a breathy, somewhat hard to pinpoint fashion, but to spot-on effect.
The play starts innocuously enough, with Alex ruminating over the meaning of “corners of one’s mind,” the lyric from “Memories” in the film “The Way We Were” and one of Streisand’s mega hits. He also reminds the audience that the entire tale is complete fiction. “The premise is preposterous. What I am telling you could not possibly have happened with a person this famous, talented and litigious as Barbra Streisand.”
He also mentions that he generally does not do impressions. “When I tell you about the conversations we had–which never really took place–I’ll just be her and you can fill in the rest,” he says. “What does exist is this book,” he amends.
Humor revs up when Alex arrives at the Malibu compound replete with chickens. “Who has chickens in Malibu,” he muses while parking his dirt-encrusted Jetta behind a barn.
There are no sets save for two pieces of furniture, but background pictures loosely suggest the scene and prod the audience to fill in details. No costume changes, either. Alex’s coiffure is a mix between a Beatle haircut and a woman’s bob.
Hilarity escalates while one learns about Barry, a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx. He wants to wire Alex for sound and equip him with a good phone camera after learning for whom he now works despite the confidentiality agreement. “I have an artistic and historical interest,” says Barry, an under-employed screenwriter and not a whole-hearted Streisand fan, or Streisand queen, as he puts it.
Meanwhile, there are witty references to Barbra’s just-so tastes and, finally there’s the diva herself, touring her possessions. Alex’s description of Barbra’s appearance (“hair styled to look like hair always pops out of 68-year-old heads that way”) and the pair haggling over the price of a storied French musical doll is priceless.
Barbra, enters at first incognito; “Call me Sadie” she instructs. Over time, a tenuous relationship ensues which Alex emotionally embellishes into friendship, after Barbra reveals her real identity. Not to give too much away here, she has ulterior motives for befriending her hire, something he finds out after he’s finally given the grand tour of the main house he had come to dream about.
Slowly, poignancy takes hold. Convinced that Barbra is becoming a friend, he breaks off with Barry after he disparages Alex’s growing attachment to the star. “When there is someone like her in the world, someone that extraordinary, and I get to spend every day in her presence, then the only legitimate response is, thank you,” counters Alex.
Things go further south after Alex becomes Barbra’s acting coach for a planned re-make of “Gypsy.” “We raged, we cajoled, we toyed with each other. We sang….”
But, after a bout with heartbreak, his stars re-align, planets continue to spin in their orbits and Alex renews his joie de vivre.
Collins needn’t worry about his career in real life. He has pulled off being a one-man band with aplomb, assuring himself many more rounds of standing ovations.